In the aftermath of the Bengaluru mass molestation, there’s been a wave of reactions across social media. Outrage and disappointment poured in from nearly all quarters, but not quite. #NotAllMen began to trend on Twitter as men came out to protest the generalisation that they were all perverts. In response, the #YesAllWomen movement wearily picked up steam again as it tried for the umpteenth time to explain to men what it means to be a woman in today’s society, and the degree to which women face sexual harassment every single day.
It’s not the first time women have been made to justify why they deserve a life free from eve-teasing and sexual harassment. Among those who haven’t experienced it, there’s a general consensus that the daily issues women face with casual sexism are only a minor inconvenience, and completely different from the more valid fear of rape. What seems so hard to accept is that being hooted at while crossing the street or followed as you walk your dog at night is in itself a traumatising event. Women around the world are forced to justify why they feel helpless and terrified in a situation the world sees as ‘uncomfortable’ at most.
Here are some facts: Eve-teasing is sexual violence. It is the intentional infliction of emotional distress. It involves “making vulgar comments, indecent proposals, unwelcome gestures with hands, legs, fingers or other organs, attempting to make physical contact, etc. Any kind of verbal or non-verbal behavior, physical conduct or display of objects or pictures and comments about a woman’s looks or body can also be considered as eve-teasing”, as defined by a 2014 study.
The average case of sexual harassment could be anything. It could be your milkman staring at you as you count out your money. It could be the bumping and grinding in packed bus that hides creeping fingers. It could be your boss insisting that you get in the pool at an off-site, or your co-workers joking about what you’ve got on under that breezy blouse. It could be your uncle exclaiming how you’ve grown, when you know he’s not talking about your height. It could be a strange man on the street singing voyeuristic bollywood songs as you leave the house or your downstairs neighbour asking for the third time when your husband will be home.
The earlier mentioned 2014 study was conducted at the University of Calicut, Kerala. It asked 120 female students how they reacted to eve-teasing. Almost all expressed a readiness to react if harassed, either by directly confronting their attacker or by complaining to a higher authority. Yet only 1,444 cases of eve-teasing were registered in 2015. So, why aren’t more women speaking up? Let’s try to understand this.
At the instance of harassment, three emotions take over.
Fear, that the smallest incidence of intimidation can escalate.
Shame, the grotesquely unfair result of a lifetime of victim-blaming and moral policing, shame at being taken by surprise yet again, shame at the sheer hopelessness of our situation.
Helplessness as control over our bodies is taken from us again and again and again.
Nothing prepares you for the anger and frustration that comes afterward. No amount of second-hand gossip, or public lectures or misguided movies readies you for the personal and painful experience of having your power taken from you with a passing gesture. When you wish you had turned sooner, when you reimagine all the scenarios in which you would have gotten justice. Even when you get the chance to confront your attacker, it’s with a burning sense of rage that comes from a place of complete vulnerability. Just by virtue of being a woman, you become a target. Every situation holds the potential of violence for you. Every man has the potential to hurt you. To live with this knowledge, every day, is trauma.
The results are just as telling. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, agoraphobia, personality disruptions, addictions and suicide can all be just as much results of sexual harassment as they are of rape. To belittle someone’s experience of roadside harassment, to demand that she face physical, brutal violence before she complain, and maybe not even then, is cruel.
If you are a woman who’s had her peace of mind disrupted by sexual harassment, ask for help. What is happening to you is not normal, it is not just something everyone has to deal with. Sexual harassment has very real psychological repercussions. Seek support among your fellows and be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling. #YesAllWomen deserve dignity, and #YesAllWomen deserve help.